Rant I Didn't Want To Do Again

1 November 2001

Do you know how many trick-or-treaters we got last night? One. One. He was dressed as a very cold hockey player: a goalie mask, shorts, and a T-shirt. He was about 12. I have no problem with 12-year-olds trick-or-treating, but I wanted a 6-year-old in some funky costume. I suppose this is what we get for living in this type of apartment complex. It's a rabbit warren, really; there are lots of kids here, but it's hard to judge who's home and who's not, so I guess they went elsewhere for their candy.

It still felt like Halloween, though, surprisingly enough. Timprov carved the pumpkin -- he was going to carve it to look like me, and it came out okay, but not stunningly M'rissa. He can try again next year, I suppose. He toasted the seeds, which was all nice and Halloweeny and reminded me of when I was little and my godfather and I carved my pumpkins together. And then I melted caramel for on my apple, and that was Halloweeny, too.

Oh, this really tall kid came to the door, but I think he was dressed as a Freaky Science Fiction Writer, and he had tiramisu, so we let him in. It was good to see Avi again. Since I can't really travel, I'm glad friends are willing to travel to get to me.

(Hear that, Mary Anne? Tiramisu. And I had potpie for dinner. I'm taking your list seriously.)

Whenever I have something nice happen, I have an e-mail list of "everybody" that I e-mail en masse and say, "Hi, I sold a story." Or whatever happened. And I'm always interested in seeing who responds and how soon. When I mailed people that Future Orbits had bought "The Handmade's Tale," I also mentioned the cracked ribs. Well, my aunt Jeannie, on the Lingen side, wrote back to me reminding me that the cough is not entirely from the maternal genes. No. Aunt Jeannie knows coughs. She aspirated a peanut. Do you know how good for your lungs it is to have a peanut in them? Not very. And now I'm really, really cautious whenever I eat peanuts on an airplane. Anyway, I wanted to make sure my mom's side wasn't getting all the blame for the Cough From Hell.

I was sitting around reading Robert Sheckley stories, taking a break from edits, waiting for Mark to call with his ETA. And Timprov and I started flipping through the channels. He stopped on Emeril. I had never watched Emeril straight through. I knew the catch-phrases, because my godfathers love Emeril. But I'd never seen him work. Thing is, the studio audience was cheering for garlic. They also cheered for port and random other things, but garlic got cheers every single time. I am so baffled. I thought I was a great big garlic lover. I can't really cook without fresh garlic. But I've never cheered for garlic. I thought I was celebrating my life to the fullest, but evidently I ought to be whooping and hollering whenever I put garlic in a recipe. Who knew?

And every day, the newspaper brings more joy to my house. This time, there was a woman in it who said that she threw out the candy her daughters got trick-or-treating at all but the households she knew. It was "safer" that way, she said. How about "more wasteful?" I think that's a pretty fair assessment. Sending your kids to get candy you have no intention letting them eat or even trade at the lunch table for better candy? How is this not wasteful?

And then, in the letters to the editor section, one gentleman claims that most doctors had not heard of anthrax before the current scare came up. I really, really, really hope he's wrong. Really. Because -- come on, folks, it's anthrax. It's not just that I'm from the Midwest, is it? Everybody has heard of anthrax. Haven't they?

Oh, and speaking of being from the Midwest, I got into it a bit on Columbine's weblog because the Midwest came up. This goes on my list of rants I don't want to have to have any more, right up there with The Only Child Rant. I am tired of these two rants. But then I go somewhere else and run into new people, and bam, it's time for the rant again. Or else people I've already run into have not believed me, or haven't paid attention, or haven't realized I was serious, or something. The "you" here doesn't necessarily mean you -- I'm not talking to anyone in specific. But if it does mean you, pay attention.

So let's try this again. There are conformists everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. You can't escape them by moving to a different part of the country. Okay, so out here in the Bay Area, conformity wears a nose ring. But it's still not particularly accepting of deep differences in lifestyle and opinion. There are also interesting people everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. You can't escape them by moving to a different part of the country. There is nowhere where everyone is like "us" or like "them."

(The thing that really kills me when people bitch about how the Midwest is so conformist is that they almost always are making the assumption that they, personally, are far too weird. They are so wacky! Nobody in the Midwest could be wacky like them! Some of them are right that they're deeply weird. But it's amazing what a huge percentage of the population is convinced that nobody is weird like they are.)

Also, tastes in landscape vary. The prairie is not an inherently bad landscape. "It's so boooooring," you whine. Well, that's because you don't like it. Mark and I drove through Oregon a year ago in August. All the way from the south border to Portland, we drove and drove, and guess what? It was repetitive. There were hills and trees and hills and trees, hills packed full of trees, trees entirely covering hills. "But that's preeeeetty," you whine. Yes, I agree. But do you see that it's not a single bit less repetitive than prairie? And do you see that if I tried to say that my home is pretty and yours is boring, you would get upset with me, but that somehow you feel the reverse is okay? Why is that, that the reverse is okay?

And further. You don't get to pick cities to represent your regions and I-80 to represent mine. You don't get to say, well, I had a fabulous time in New York and then driving on I-80 was soooo boring. Let me tell you: the Ben and Jerry's stops on some of the toll roads back east are convenient and tasty, but not exactly culturally fascinating. And that's exactly the comparison you're making. You're trying to compare your museum, theatre, and restaurant districts to my roadside stop. You're trying to compare your fun summer festivals to the half hour you spent at Burger King in Grand Junction. Cut it out.

Listening to Garrison Keillor and driving I-80 is no substitute for actually spending time in the Midwest. Not even Jon Hassler will get you a Get Out Of Knowledge Free card. Not even Pamela Dean. And you know most of the people you've talked to who grew up in the Midwest and said it was horrible and they moved away as soon as they grew up? How many teenagers do you know that think that there's enough to do in their city, that their city is the coolest place on the earth, etc.? I've heard kids in the Bay Area with the perennial teenage whine: "There's nothing to dooooooo." The difference is that out here, nobody believes them. Well, they shouldn't be believed in the Midwest, either.

There's more of this, of course, but I'm just tired of it. We'll move home someday within a year or two, and then some of you-all can come visit us. And then you'll notice that there's more than a Dairy Queen in town, and that we have friends who still think for themselves, and...all those wonderful things.

Ah well. Mary Anne was writing about a piece of hate mail she got, and wondering why people distrust grad school and writing workshops and so on, so much. While I think it's horrible that she got the hate mail, and I can't even begin to explain the person's mind (especially since I haven't read it), I can see some more reasons why people would distrust these writing-related institutions. The one she came up with was fear that the individual voice would be drowned out, and I can see that. But I can also see that grad school especially changes your focus. Different things look important from the perspective of grad school. What your individual voice is will change. If it doesn't, if grad school makes no impact on you, why go? But the direction of the focus change often looks strange and scary from the outside, or sometimes just silly. Any institution needs to justify itself, and sometimes I think writing institutions go overboard in that regard. I have seen more than one case where people start to skip the step of finding an audience with whom they want to communicate and just head right on to the "create a legacy for the literary critics" step. Which doesn't mean that grad school always does this -- just that it can, and when it does, people get spooked. And there are actions that make sense in the context of grad school that look just a little zany from out here. "You want to do what because of lit theory?" is a not-unreasonable question, nor an uncommon one.

There are people, too, who tend towards being detail-oriented. (Not that we know anybody like that around here.) And in some of those cases, writing classes, workshops, grad school, whatever, will exacerbate the forest-for-the-trees problem that already exists. Jenn has written about that a bit lately. It's a problem I had to get over myself in order to write, so I can see where it would frustrate or frighten people to have it intensified.

Mostly, though, I think people don't really understand how their writing works, or why. I don't mean in terms of story arc or metaphor or anything like that. I mean that most people who write have no idea why they're able to sit down and pull up words and string them together into any kind of narrative at all, much less a cohesive, interesting one. And they're scared to death that if they mess with it, it will go away. That they're balancing on a knife-edge, and doing it differently will cause it all to come crashing down. And then they won't be able to write any more.

It's a scary feeling. I mean, when a physics problem doesn't work, you know what you have to do to start over again, you know what tools are at your disposal, concretely, and you know that there's an answer somewhere. With writing, you're making up the problems yourself, and you have no guarantee that they even have solutions. What if there just is no way to write an interesting book about Finland and magic and early computing? I don't know until I've tried it, and retried and retried if necessary. So in the midst of all of that, its no surprise that people get a little mystical about their writing. It may not be a good defense mechanism, but sometimes a bad defense looks better than none.

Me, I'm just not interested in jumping through hoops right now. Except the simple kind, Courier 12-point, put the title and your name and the page number in the upper right corner.... But that's another story.

For some reason, I have the urge to listen to the Bosstones, and for some reason it feels like the weekend already. Mark is going to work, so it's clearly not the weekend. But it felt like last night was Friday and today is supposed to be Saturday. Ah well. I shall forge ahead, making avgelimonio or something akin to it for supper, with crescent rolls, and possibly seeing Tim -- haven't heard from him for sure -- and generally reading and working and being. It's All Saints' Day, but I think those ideas will wait for tomorrow. I've already babbled and ranted enough.

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